On a ship, one of the most important jobs is that of the sentinel or “lookout.” The lookout’s job is to scan the horizon, keeping a vigilant watch for hazards to keep the ship out of harm’s way. When it comes to the Great Lakes basin, who should serve as the sentinel of water quality? Who should stand lookout to anticipate threats to the ecosystem and galvanize a proactive response?
The Great Lakes ecosystem has a disappointing track record for anticipating and preventing ecosystem damage. From invasive species like zebra mussels to harmful chemical byproducts from industrial activities, there have been many different, sometimes interacting, threats that people didn’t see coming until it was too late.
It’s important to celebrate the tremendous progress made remediating these problems, but the lesson learned is that it takes significant resources to reverse problems, said Lucinda Johnson, a member of the IJC Science Advisory Board and associate director and initiative director for water at the University of Minnesota-Duluth Natural Resources Research Institute.
“So, the Science Advisory Board thought it was prudent to ask: ‘What would it take for the Great Lakes community to do a better job anticipating and preventing problems, not just reacting to them?’ Thus, we initiated the Great Lakes Early Warning System, or GLEWS, studies,” Johnson said.
She is the co-chair of the work group for the study, along with Michael Twiss, IJC Science Advisory Board member and chair of the biology department at Clarkson University in New York.
There are several early warning systems around the Great Lakes, but they usually focus on a single threat or region, or rapid-onset threats that take only days or hours to affect the lakes.
Examples include the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System (GLANSIS), Wayne State University’s Huron to Erie Drinking Water Monitoring Network, the Great Lakes Observing System’s Harmful Algal Bloom Early Warning System and the University of Windsor’s Real-Time Aquatic Ecosystem Observation Network (RAEON). A 2016 study surveyed 53 platforms using emerging technology to make observations and detect changes to water quality and environmental conditions in the Great Lakes.
The overarching goal of the GLEWS project is to understand the feasibility of a basinwide monitoring and response framework for anticipating and responding to the full range of emerging threats to the Great Lakes, particularly slow-onset threats that take years or decades to manifest. Examples of slow-onset stressors include contaminants that slowly build up in the water and soil, and the long-term increase in water temperature from climate change.
“No matter what a Great Lakes Early Warning System might look like, implementing it will require a significant binational participation,” said Twiss. “We know from experience that the cost of doing nothing is a far higher price to pay.”
There are two phases of the GLEWS project because there are two distinct questions to answer. First, who is in charge of such a system? Second, what information should the system analyze to assess risk?
In May 2020, IJC Commissioners approved the Science Advisory Board’s final report on the first phase of the GLEWS project.
For the first phase report, a group of experts considered six different organizational structures for overseeing the implementation of GLEWS among the many Great Lakes organizations and government agencies across the basin. The six options were developed based on a review of existing early warning system frameworks.
Considering the options, the experts concluded that the IJC’s unique role as an independent, binational and science-based organization makes it well-suited to convene a group of subject matter experts that would oversee GLEWS activities and report to the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board.
A ship cannot sail with only a lookout; it also needs a crew of highly qualified personnel to navigate the waters. Likewise, GLEWS should be supported by a diversity of subject matter experts, according to the Science Advisory Board’s report. The report recognizes that GLEWS must be supported by Canadian and US government agency experts and resources to assess, rank and report on emerging threats to the Great Lakes ecosystem.
The next phase of the project is to examine the early warning system components for risk analysis and assessment, which the board will work on during the next few years.
“We know we can’t know everything or see the future - we’re scientists, not magicians. But the power of science is that with the right suite of indicators, monitoring data, models, scenarios and communal participation we can improve our ability to get ahead of the curve,” said Twiss.
The Great Lakes Early Warning System is one of several tools under development by IJC’s Great Lakes study boards to help care for Great Lakes ecosystem health in a proactive and holistic manner. The Science Advisory Board‘s Science Priority Committee also is close to completing a study exploring the interacting and cumulative effects of important stressors in the Great Lakes. Stay tuned to future issues of Great Lakes Connection for updates.
Allison Voglesong Zejnati is public affairs specialist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.